Nothing wins hearts like cheerfulness – St. Dwynwen
The celebration of Dwynwen – the Welsh patron saint of lovers – takes place on January 25th. Not only does she command a unique day on the calendar, but Dwynwen surely lives on in cheerful spirit. Llanddwyn Island, the slim peninsular of land dedicated to her is so evocative, surely there has to be more than lava rock, saltmarsh and historic ruins here…
One of the 24 daughters of a Welsh prince, Dwynwen lived in the fifth century AD. She fell in love with a young man called Maelon but rejected his advances. This, depending on which story you read, was either because she wished to remain chaste and become a nun or because her father wished her to marry another. She prayed to be released from this unhappy situation and dreamed that she was given a potion to do this. However, the potion turned Maelon to ice. She then prayed that she be granted three wishes: 1) that Maelon be revived, 2) that all true lovers find happiness, and 3) that she should never again wish to be married. She then retreated to the solitude of Llanddwyn Island to follow the life of a hermit. Not so bad, then.
Dwynwen became known as the patron saint of lovers, and pilgrimages were made to her holy well on the island. It was said that the faithfulness of a lover could be divined through the movements of the eels that lived in the well. This was done by the woman first scattering breadcrumbs, then laying her handkerchief on the surface. If the eels disturbed it then her lover would be faithful. Visitors would leave offerings at this shrine, and so popular was this place of pilgrimage that it became the richest in the area during Tudor times. This funded a substantial chapel that was built in the 16th century. In 1879, a plain cross was erected in Dwynwen’s memory, followed by the Celtic cross in 1903. The medieval love poet Dafydd ap Gwilym first popularised her story in the 13th century, writing: ‘Dwynwen your beauty is like a silver tear. Your church is ablaze with candlelight.’ To see that church ablaze with candlelight against such a backdrop must have been beyond magical. But there is still magic to be found here.
The history behind these scattered ruins across a relatively small area of land, seems all the more poignant for their close proximity … a concentration of beauty and legend, history and romance. There’s a sense of shivery danger too when you learn that at certain high tides, the island is completely cut off from the mainland. And yet there’s a quaint coziness in the row of empty cottages – given over to a small maritime museum – the lighthouse and the boats. I was walking into a children’s adventure one moment, a grisly crime scene or a romantic mystery, the next. (Only in my imagination). And I was on a natural history tour too, scanning the coves for seals, cormorants, sandpipers and turnstones. The rock formations are pillow lava, formed by undersea volcanic eruptions; as the hot molten rock met the cold seawater a balloon-like skin was formed, which then filled with more lava, forming the characteristic pillow shape. These extend down much of the length of Llanddwyn Island, giving it its interesting rolling topography along the beach. These secret coves of washed sand, one after the other nestled into the cliffs were virtually undisturbed, even on a busy day. Combined with the two crosses set against the sky, the solitude lends the place a special peace, a mesmerising natural sanctuary.
No surprise then that the island has been used for various film sets. The lighthouse was built in 1845 in a style similar to Anglesey’s windmills. In 2004, it became a location for filming romantic thriller Half Light. From here there are fabulous views stretching to the misty hills and mountains of the Llyn Peninsula and Snowdonia.
According to Dwynwen nothing won the heart like cheerfulness. Where else can a writer, photographer, artist, nature lover, bird-watcher, walker or historian find such concentrated richness? I was left contemplating that historical novel, no, wait, I need to write a time-slip historical fantasy. Or the next Enid Blyton? Whatever the outcome, Llanddwyn certainly won my heart.
Words and photography by Jan Ruth.
Watch & Walk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s27z_gBHqek
The only historical event I can remember with any accuracy is good old 1066 and The Battle of Hastings. At school I was hopeless at dates, in fact anything to do with numbers, but I used to love history because sooner or later it usually involved writing essays. Now though, I suspect there may be more to it. The longer I live and the more places I visit in the world, the more connected I feel to my roots, or more specifically my spiritual home, Snowdonia.
Twenty years ago we moved from Cheshire to North Wales. Although Cheshire has its history and pretty rural surroundings aplenty, Wales is far more extreme in both aspects. The castles and the rugged hillsides strewn with stone settlements, druid circles and Roman roads bring out the historical muse in me. To think that I am treading the same path as someone who lived in the Iron Age, is both fascinating and humbling. Snowdonia kick-started my stalled obsession with writing in a very positive way.
All this whimsical talk of the past makes me sound as if I write historical-based fiction. Far from it. Much as I admire many other genres I tend to be very much rooted in current times and my work reflects a lot of my own life experiences. But this is where I find the two ideas merge a little because I am most certainly inspired by this Ice Age landscape. What has gone before certainly shapes what we see today, but does it shape what we feel, too?
There’s no doubt I’m in my creative comfort zone tramping up the hills on a moody day. There’s no better way of busting that plot. Dedicated to a 6th century prince, the tiny church of St. Celynin (sometimes known as Llangelynnin) is a great find for historians, spiritualists, all kinds of artists, and a certain weary walking writer. This church is mentioned in the Wild Water series and I’ve spent many an hour soaking up the atmosphere. It’s quite a climb, some 900 feet above the village of Henryd, but sheltered from the Irish Sea by the comfortable bulk of Tal-Y-Fan. It proclaims to be the most remote church in Wales and due to its location on the Pilgrim’s Way, it is actually better accessed on foot or on horseback, but that’s just me wearing my whimsical hat again. I guess you could ride a quad bike or get a 4×4 along the green lane (originally the coffin path) up from the village, but that would spoil the experience considerably. The centuries of men’s hands on the same stones put the feeling into a place. I can relate to this and there’s no better way of making that connection than scrambling over those very same walls and finding a way across the hills. Even the names of the mountains are laced with enough magic to fuel the effort.
A small and simple building, it probably dates from the 12th century (although some sources cite the 13th century), and was likely pre-dated by an earlier church of timber, or wattle and daub construction. Llangelynnin is also the name of the former parish, the primary school in nearby Henryd (Ysgol Llangelynnin). Celynin’s name is also carried by Craig Celynin, a mountain ridge adjacent to the church. Inside the building, there are inscriptions on the white-washed walls of The Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer, and strangely enough a skull and crossbones. The Welsh language, being the oldest (still spoken) language in the world, lends so much more romance and intrigue to any story, even though I don’t understand all the words. One of the well-preserved benches is dated from 1629 and dedicated to Reverend Owen Bulkeley, former rector. Oh, I’d love to go back to those times just for a few hours, to maybe listen to the man reading his sermon and sit with the congregation. Instead, we have to be content with mere historical recordings and the remnants of those times, in whatever form they take.
Close by are the remains of an inn and a cock-fighting pit – if you know what to look for. Easier to see is St Celynin’s Holy Well. Sick children were often brought to these holy waters for a diagnosis whereby an item of the patient’s clothing would be flung into the water. If the clothing floated, then the child would recover…
I love the way ancient history here is often blurred by myths and legends, shape-shifters and superstitions. Rich then, in history and romance and easy enough to blend both, with a touch of fantasy and suspense. Especially so when the winter sun is low in the sky, sending out early shadows to creep across the crooked stones of derelict homesteads and graves. And late sunsets in summer, when the scudding clouds floating in a fiery sky take on the shape of dragons and rearing horses. Or maybe, when the druid’s circle is shrouded in mist and… can you hear something? Like the clink of marching armour and the clash of swords…there’s something moving out there, or is it just my imagination?
Words and photography by Jan Ruth